Jim Harbaugh understands this rivalry in a way few people can.
He went to high school in spitting distance of the Big House and later he started at quarterback for Michigan and now coaches at his alma mater. As someone with a very personal connection to the in-state “championship”, as he has begun to call it, Harbaugh knows what a win against Michigan State can do for the No. 4 Michigan football team’s season.
And maybe even more so, he knows the tremendous implications of a loss:
The disdain from the fanbase, the angry mobs clamoring for his job and all the goodwill he built up last year disappearing in an instant.
So as Harbaugh stood at the podium Monday afternoon for his weekly press conference, in front of a more packed crowd than usual, that much was clear.
With each and every probing question practically begging Harbaugh to say something inflammatory that can be reposted relentlessly until the week’s end, his answers all blurred together — a hodgepodge of coach speak essentially all saying the same thing.
What is it about this rivalry?
“I think just everybody wants it so bad,” Harbaugh said. “Everybody wants to win — players, coaches and fanbases.”
How are you preparing your team?
“You know the old cliché, throw out the records is very true,” Harbaugh said. “And it doesn’t matter, I mean both sides just want it that much.”
How do you make sure it gets your team’s attention?
“Our guys really want to win this,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not gonna lie to you, I really want to win it.”
How are you motivating your team?
“Just really wanting to win this game, and that’s enough,” Harbaugh said.
This is the way of rivalry week.
Harbaugh has seen the circus that comes time and time again, he has been through the gauntlet and seen all the vitriol — he knows better than to provide another sound-byte. But it was still apparent that, even through all of his blanket-statement answers, that what he said was genuine.
Harbaugh really, really wants to beat the Spartans on Saturday night. In front of a packed crowd, he wants to show that he can kick the demons of his past, namely his 0-2 record against Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, and he is preparing his team for such a task.
The sentiment he expressed multiple times on Monday is one that he clearly instilled in his team — especially given the nature of the rivalry.
“We don’t exactly know what we’ll get,” graduate offensive lineman Ryan Hayes said. “We got to be prepared for anything.”
Hayes and Harbaugh know that, regardless of how people think this game will go for any given year, it’s almost a guarantee that it will be a dog fight. Hayes experienced the losses of the last two years where his team was favored, as did Harbaugh.
There isn’t anyone inside the Wolverines’ program that’ll say they are underestimating Michigan State, and that comes from the top. From Harbaugh, from their team leaders such as Hayes and senior defensive tackle and captain Mazi Smith, the message is always the same.
Something that so many of Michigan’s players have remembered over the weeks leading up to this year’s game, was the feeling that it felt after last year’s emotional loss.
“You just don’t like that, don’t like that taste,” Smith said. “Now you get an opportunity to get rid of that taste, so you got to take it or you not? Everybody knows how important this week is. Everybody knows how important this game is.”
Now it’s time to see if that will actually translate onto the field.